As a part of a Master Recycler / Composter class that I am taking we recently went on a field trip. The two most interesting stops for me were to a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) and a sanitary landfill. Getting a first-hand look in to exactly what happens to single sort recycling and trash was very educational.
The MRF was part impressive technological marvel and part old factory line worker. On the one hand there were sophisticated conveyor belts, gears, magnets, optical lasers, and air pressure to help sort the materials. On the other hand, there was a visible shortage of employees on the line who were tasked with helping to manually sort items that do not belong or were missed by the automated systems. These jobs of watching and pulling various materials flying past on a conveyor belt are challenging to staff but very necessary to ensure a quality product is produced so that there is a market for the materials. For a good visual of how a typical MRF works, check out the last three and half minutes of this video.
The landfill had its technical aspects as well; like collecting methane gas from the breakdown of trash, liners and pumps to protect from ground water penetration, and more. But in the end it is not all that sophisticated, as it is a giant piece of land being filled with trash and covered. In the picture above I happened to take it as the hydraulic line on one of the trucks ruptured. If I had a better camera with me, I would have zoomed in to show the sad sight of a bunch of bald eagles (our national emblem) sifting through and snacking on our garbage.
My trip left me with several takeaways:
As citizens of the planet, we should continue to work towards reducing consumption and voting with our dollar to buy sustainably sourced items. Not bringing something in to the system in the first place is even better than recycling it. As one of my old favorites says, you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely.
Plastic bags are a huge problem. At the MRF they are undesirable as they wrap around the equipment and cause machinery breakdowns. Do not put them in your single sort bin and do not put your recyclables in bags, put recyclables directly in your cart. At the landfill, there were three fence lines surrounding the facility filled with bags that blow around on windy days. We should all be moving beyond plastic bags for our shopping and kudos to Minneapolis for passing a law for 2017 that does just that. So, if you find yourself with a pile of plastic bags they should be brought to a local grocery store who likely has a bin for recycling them. That way they get to a facility who specializes in them and they can use them to create engineered lumber, yard furniture, etc.
MRF’s do not want your shredded paper. It falls through the system and ends up contaminating the glass and other recyclables making them less marketable. Ironically and sadly, I had just shredded a pile of financial statements the week prior and had thrown them in my single sort. Fears of identity theft are warranted but we have several options to improve and keep recycled material at a high quality:
Go paperless – most bills and financial information can be sent electronically which simplifies filing and saves some trees.
Only shred what you need to – There is typically only a part of a page or two that really needs shredding and the rest of the information is marketing or does not have personal information that would be beneficial to a hoodlum; minimize what you shred.
Take advantage of shred events – There is one near me coming up and a quick search should find options. Shredded paper is recyclable but a MRF is not equipped for it so finding a shred event is a great way to protect your identity and ensure the lifecycle of the paper is not wasted.
Compost – as a last resort you can compost your shredded paper, use it as a weed barrier, etc. The caveat is you would want to avoid certain items on a vegetable garden, etc.
Put the caps on your recyclables. MRF’s do not like loose caps as they fall through the system and end up in the landfill, can cause equipment problems, etc. They prefer caps be left on even when it is a plastic cap on a glass item, etc.
Use common sense with recycling and if you are in doubt, check your local haulers website or call and ask them. Garden hoses, extension cords, coat hangers and items like that clog machinery and do not belong in single sort. Our MRF tour guide also mentioned that they routinely see dirty diapers coming down the conveyor belt and that the strangest item was a live turtle. Let’s try to be less lazy with our choices and if you are not certain whether a turtle is recyclable, ask someone :).
Aerosols require special care to recycle. Items like spray on sun screen, hairspray, and shaving cream containers often have a mix of metals and plastic and are pressurized which can create a hazard when going to a MRF and yet they are recyclable. The best way to handle these items is to collect them a take them to your local specialty recycling center like The Recycling Zone which most counties have. One idea is to keep a bin that you put these items, alkaline batteries, fluorescent bulbs, electronics, and similar in and then take it there as needed. The great news is it is free and the workers will even come grab the stuff from your car.
There are 8 MRF’s in the MN metro area and they all offer tours as they want the public to be educated and to improve their recycling efforts so that they produce a high quality product. I encourage you to read up on your haulers website about what exactly they recycle and organize a MRF tour if so inclined.
In thinking about approaching 2016 I had random scattered thoughts for things I would like to do or change. As I prioritized the hustle and bustle of the holidays as well as the chillaxing family time, I am just articulating my thoughts now.
My thoughts on own 2016 resolutions are as follows:
Eliminating the use of single use plastic bottles – It is easy to grab a single use plastic chocolate milk bottle when at Kwik Trip or a plastic soda bottle from a vending machine, but transitioning to carrying a reusable water bottle with me to ail my thirst will improve my bottom line and waistline. When I need a soda, I will choose an aluminum can or to fill my reusable at the fountain machine. I can do the same at Caribou or the hockey rink when I need something warm. Part of what is driving this desire to mitigate any use of plastic bottles is my disgust over Nestle and the way water is becoming privatized. In the midst of California’s historic drought, Nestle Waters (the largest bottler of water in the world) continues to draw water from the San Bernardino National Forest and other public lands around the world. Their permit for San Bernardino expired in 1988 and yet they continue to take the water uncontested by the Forest Service. I would encourage you to take a few minutes and watch the top two videos on this page and think about how you can reduce giving in to single use plastic bottles.
Getting Fat II – As I mentioned in my previous post, I purchased a fat tire bike and have been riding it quite a bit. For 2016, I have decided to set an annual goal for miles ridden of 1,000. I plan to track this on my band and it will give me the flexibility to not ride on some days and ride more miles on others. I am all geared up for winter riding, night riding, and have even used my bike for one errand so far since I now have a lock.
Volunteering – My schedule allows time for volunteering and working on different causes. For 2016 I plan to streamline those efforts and focus more in areas where I feel I am providing a valuable impact. Sometimes my passion and persistence to help an organization in need has resulted in a one sided effort where I end up cajoling the organization in to accepting help. That is frustrating and I need to put my energy in to places that are appreciative and desiring help.
No plastic bags – Our family owns plenty of reusable shopping bags. For 2016 my intent is to not use a single disposable shopping bag to get items home from a store. If I forget to bring reusable bags, I will need to just carry stuff or go get the reusable bags. I have been at 90% on this effort, but my goal for 2016 is 100%.
I am certain I am missing some items I thought of previously and will likely still add some other 30 day challenges to the year.
Paul Douglas Blog – Paul provides accurate weather and forecast information as well the latest information on climate change and how it is impacting us. Perhaps, he says it best, “My intention isn’t to alarm you or depress you but prompt you to go online and see the real scientific findings, free of ideological spin or snark.” This is the most comprehensive and consumable blog I have seen because it is so factual and provides great detail.Pick a day and give it a read.
Minnesota Retiree Environmental Technical Assistance Program – RETAP is a FREE program and intended for businesses and schools interested in reducing their energy consumption.Engineers will come to your business and do an assessment to determine ways to reduce waste, save energy, conserve water, etc.This program is highly organized and something that every business and school in Minnesota should be taking advantage of.
Minnesota Center for Energy and Environment – MNCEE is a great local non-profit that brings energy solutions to homeowners as well as businesses.You might have seen their home energy squad vehicles in your neighborhood helping install efficient lighting, programmable thermostats, insulation, and more.Regardless of if you are a homeowner or business owner, this group can help you save energy and accelerate the return on investment for renewables.They also sponsor the Minnesota Energy Challenge which has brought schools, businesses, and neighborhoods into friendly competition to help save energy.
Minnesota Renewable Energy Society – Whether you are interested in attending workshops or classes on sustainability solutions or speak to homeowners who have implemented clean energy solutions, this is a great place to start.They have dedicated staff and you have most likely seen them at the ECO Experience at the great Minnesota get together.
The Story of Stuff Project – This site has great information about some of the issues with our current approach to sustainability.If you have not seen any, check out the videos Annie Leonard does under the movies section and start with the original; Story of Stuff.Coming soon is the Story of Solutions which will recognize some of the great opportunities and work being done.
Citizens Climate Lobby – The CCL is a non-partisan national group with local chapters who recognizes that getting local elected officials aware of the facts is critical to getting change implemented.Their site and group is highly organized and regardless of if you are interested in engaging a congress person or writing a letter to the editor, this is a great site to give a read.
Department of Energy – The DOE site has all of the information on tax credits and rebates, energy saving information, energy use per person averages, details on emerging energy solutions, and lots more public information.The Environmental Protection Agency has similar content with an additional focus on human health impacts and you can jump over to the Energy Star website for comparison of the efficiency of new appliances and more.
Places to find factual and scientific information onclimate change:
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA is a Department of Commerce agency that does weather forecasts, storm monitoring, climate monitoring and more.They are dedicated to protecting humans and natural resources and the site is full of interesting information.Climate.gov is also a NOAA site promoted to increasing the public understanding of climate science and climate related events.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – The IPCC is the international body of scientists in charge of assessing climate change.Thousands of scientists from around the world contribute to the work and the assessment reports are incredibly detailed.The IPCC is one of the primary targets of the denier community because their information is so scientifically factual and damaging to the fossil fuel industries impact on our planet.The fifth assessment report is officially released tomorrow (Monday 9/30/13).
Walk off the Earth – because sometimes sitting back and appreciating talented people is a good investment of time.If you have never seen their videos, there are plenty to check out and be entertained by, like this one.